Exports in the Irish meat sector delivered a remarkable performance in 2020 despite the challenges faced, according to Meat Industry Ireland (MII).

The comments came following the publication of Bord Bia’s Export Performance and Prospects report, which showed an increase of 2% in overall meat exports despite the disruption of COVID-19, Brexit and loss of the Chinese market for beef.

MII director Cormac Healy said: “Our members worked hard to find alternative markets for Irish meat exports in the face of an overnight shutdown of the restaurant and food service market channel due to COVID lockdowns.

“Meat export companies and their staff had to be agile in approach to the changing market dynamics, all in the context of significantly changed working arrangements.”

Significant diversification

While the value of beef and poultry exports fell by 2%, the pigmeat and sheepmeat sectors showed strong growth, up 14% and 12% respectively.

The pigmeat sector now leads the way with over 40% of exports destined for markets outside the UK and EU.

The meat and livestock sector remains a corner stone of Ireland’s export economy

Beef exports, while remaining highly reliant on the UK market, have showed significant diversification in recent years. In 2016, the year of the Brexit vote, the UK accounted for 56% of Irish beef exports, but this had reduced to 44% last year.

Healy continued: “The meat and livestock sector remains a corner stone of Ireland’s export economy and is particularly important to the economic wellbeing of rural Ireland.

“While the value of beef exports fell slightly due to its significant reliance on food service sales and the absence of the Chinese market from May 2020, exceptional performance was delivered by both the pigmeat and sheepmeat sectors.”

2021 hopes

MII has outlined critical areas in the sector which it hopes to see stability return during 2021:

  • Ongoing COVID-19 impact: while retail business has and will continue to pick up some of the lost volume, the ongoing curtailment of food service is particularly challenging for higher value steak cut sales.
  • Post-Brexit trade disruption: flexibility from competent authorities, pragmatic approach in the early months and further streamlining of processes is needed.
  • Exclusion from China: the impasse has been prolonged beyond reason and it is now time for An Taoiseach to engage with his counterpart in China in order to move the process forward quickly towards a resolution.
  • More resourcing of market access: the diversification effort must be aided by increased Government resourcing to support new market access.
  • Farmer foundation

    Similarly, IFA president Tim Cullinan has said the performance of food exports in 2020 was based on a strong farmer foundation.

    “Despite hugely disruptive circumstances, the farming and food sector has delivered for the Irish economy over the last 12 months, maintaining our presence in international markets at almost the same value. This is an impressive performance built on the resilience of our farmers."

    Cullinan also warned that 2021 will pose challenges for the sector and the response will have to be robust to improve the incomes of those who are most vulnerable in the food chain.

    “While we avoided a no-deal Brexit, farmers are exposed to a variety of issues such sterling fluctuations, logistical problems and trade difficulties. We have to prepare for this.”

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